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05/03/09 10:00 PM ET

Quiet Greinke making plenty of noise

Royals ace righty overcomes social anxiety to dominate

KANSAS CITY -- Emily Kuchar should have been on the Sports Illustrated cover instead of Zack Greinke.

That was Greinke's thought last week during a give-and-take with reporters after he'd been put on the prestigious magazine's cover. Somebody, naturally, cracked wise about SI's swimsuit issue.

"That's what my fiancee said, like I'm living her dream right now because she wants to be on the swimsuit calendar thing," Greinke said.

The Kansas City Royals' pitcher knows his girl.

"That's what I told him: 'You go ahead and make the cover -- thanks a lot!'" she said drolly.

Kuchar, who will marry Greinke after the season, is a model and an actress and a beauty pageant queen. A magazine cover is her thing.

It's not Greinke's thing. He was meeting with the reporters to talk about baseball. That's his love. He's a publicity agent's worst nightmare.

Shoot, he wouldn't even pose for an SI cover portrait. Instead you see his back, name and No. 23, warming up in the bullpen. That's Greinke -- hard at work on the dirt, not grinning for the camera.


"He'd rather not have it," Kuchar said.

Heaven knows he deserves it, though. On Monday night at Kauffman Stadium, Greinke will try to become the Major Leagues' first six-game winner this season. He's 5-0 and leads the bigs with a 0.50 ERA and 44 strikeouts. Until his last start, Greinke had not given up an earned run. He's looked unstoppable.

Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan watched Greinke shut out his team with the eye of a Hall of Fame pitcher.

"I think it's pretty amazing what he's doing, given the way the league is hitting this year and the home runs that have been hit," Ryan said. "Obviously, he has a chance to have a special season."

How special?

"If he keeps pitching this way, he looks like a Cy Young candidate, no question," said another impressed victim, Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.

One team's scout recited a list of the ultimate attributes a pitcher should possess and then drew a conclusion.

"Guys that have those things are All-Stars, and longevity will tell if they become Hall of Famers," the scout said. "Zack has that entire package, and that's what makes him so unbelievably unique."

Yes, if the 25-year-old Greinke can stay this course, he's on a ride to glory. The road's already been bumpy, though.

Folks can appreciate an athlete coming back from the ravages of cancer or a terrible accident. The physical part of a person's body elicits empathy. But mental challenges, such as Greinke's bout with social anxiety, aren't as readily understood.

Something gnawed at Greinke so much that in February 2006 Royals manager Buddy Bell noticed it during a bullpen session in Arizona. Bell and then-GM Allard Baird talked to Greinke and, with their support, he left the camp to seek help.

Greinke discussed the problem the other day at his media crunch.

"It wasn't as much pitching lows, it was more just dealing with stuff like this," Greinke said, surrounded by about 15 media, "where it used to bother me a bunch. I mean it doesn't really bother me as much anymore, it's just more annoying. I hated being around attention and stuff in the clubhouse, and I just hated being around that. I just really didn't like anything to do with being around people, for the most part."

A top Draft choice from Apopka (Fla.) High in 2002, Greinke was rushed to the Majors on May 22, 2004. The Royals were off to their most dismal start in history and Greinke, MLB.com reported, arrived like "a ray of sunshine through the dark cloud." He pitched five fine innings, left with a 4-2 lead and, right on cue, the bullpen blew it.

Greinke was 20 and looked 14, a fresh face with a fabulous arm who could lead the franchise to the Promised Land. Sort of how he's perceived today. Only then he wasn't ready. Even casual observers noticed that Greinke often seemed distant, sometimes bored, a lone figure on the field hours before a game while his teammates hobnobbed in the clubhouse.

Through his rookie season and 2005's horrendous 17-loss experience, Greinke remained remote.

That's all changed now, Kuchar will tell you.

"He's totally turned around, and it's amazing how much different he's been able to handle everything," Kuchar said.

"I don't know if he used to say one word when he was at the field. And now he's going there extra early. And I'm going, 'Hey, it's time to hang out! Why are you leaving for the field?' Because I was used to him leaving the second before he had to be out there. Now he's leaving a couple hours early. ... I'm so proud of him."

It took some doing for Greinke to cast off his demons. His family was caught off guard by the dilemma.

"You don't know how to deal with stuff until it happens to you, and you just kind of walk through it together," said Zack's father, Don Greinke, a retired teacher and coach. "We saw hints of it, of course, where he'd say things from time to time. But you don't think it's serious. You think you'll get through it at the time, but there was more to it, obviously."

Or as Zack Greinke himself put it: "I was just losing it."

But less than three months after he left camp on Feb. 25, 2006, to go home to Orlando, Fla., and psychological counseling, he was back at Surprise, Ariz., to resume workouts.

"I just wanted to make this clear," Greinke said upon his return. "I can't live without baseball."

The path back went through Wichita, Kan., where the Royals had their Double-A club teeming with several other top Draft choices such Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Mitch Maier. Around guys of similar status and about the same age, Greinke was very content albeit restless, his manager Frank White recalled. On days he didn't pitch, Greinke arrived early for batting practice.

"He'd shag balls in center field like he was in a real game. He just wore himself out," White said.

"He was a real team guy. When a lot of guys came out of the game, they'd go to the clubhouse and get ice. But he'd stay on the bench the whole game. That was good for him, part of the maturing and what it was like to be part of the Minor League system."

Greinke didn't seem in any hurry, but by mid-September, he was back in Kansas City. Then he began the 2007 season in the Royals' rotation, faltered and went to the bullpen. That relief experience, as he later recounted, "changed everything," and he gained the work and success he needed. By season's end, he was starting again with beautiful results and he followed that by charging through 2008 at 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA.

"You talk about mental toughness. There isn't a game that he'll pitch in his life that'll put him on the spot more than what he's already gone through," said Baird, now in the Boston front office.

"What he's achieved speaks volumes about himself as a man and the support from his family, his fiancée and friends," Baird said. "It still comes back to him and I'll always have great admiration for that, and that goes well beyond what he does on the field."

What he's doing on the field this year has stopped baseball fans in their tracks. They want to see him pitch, hear him talk, read about him.

Greinke, as he'll do on Monday night against the White Sox, will gladly pitch for them. The rest of the stuff? No thanks.

Kuchar says that Greinke's naturally shy and quiet, and that disposition, coupled with the social anxiety of his past, makes him averse to the publicity fuss.

"He's had to adjust because he hasn't been so comfortable with that, but at the same time, he's humble," Kuchar said. "Yes, he knows he's good, but he doesn't like all the fame and he doesn't like to be in the spotlight. And I think that social anxiety or not, he would feel that way."

Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, in his playing days, also was uncomfortable by the public glare. But along with his pitching advice to Greinke, McClure added this: "I told him, 'Embrace some of this, because it only happens once in a while.'"

Greinke is hot right now. Imagine what the Royals might do with two Greinkes. His younger brother, Luke, is a pitcher who was drafted last year in the 12th round by the Yankees but underwent shoulder surgery and was released. So Luke is a free agent. Are the Royals listening?

"He's going to come up and see Zack in a couple weeks, and if he's healthy enough, maybe he'll throw for them," Don Greinke said with a chuckle.

Ouch, more publicity.

The proud father actually started a Web site for his elder son after he was originally signed, but it was phased out when his career bogged down.

"We kind of dismantled it, so I think Zack's relieved," Don Greinke said.

Kuchar, in vivid contrast, has her own polished Web site produced by her brother. She's been a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader (and was on the cover of their swimsuit calendar), Miss Daytona Beach USA, appeared in the movie "Sydney White" and recently filmed a commercial on the Bahamas beach. She's been dancing and entertaining since she was a kid and the site helps her get acting and modeling jobs.

"It's not because I think I'm amazing and 'Here, look at me,' but it's just my line of work," Kuchar said.

Kuchar and Greinke have been dating since they were in high school at Apopka.

"I was a library assistant, and all of a sudden, Zack started needing to do more homework in the library in the time I was in there. So that's where it kind of all began," Kuchar said.

Greinke had a little joke this spring when he revealed his engagement. He said Kuchar wanted the wedding to be Oct. 10. A baseball player getting married in October? Just when the playoffs are getting in gear?

"He loved telling that story about how I wanted October. I was like, 'I just threw it out there -- it's not like I was dead-set on it,'" Kuchar said.

The date was set for Nov. 21, suitably removed from the end of the World Series.

Perhaps the playoffs, as well as the wedding, will include something blue.

"We can hope," Emily said.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.